Will Our Black Hole Eat the Milky Way?

Want to hear something cool? There’s a black hole at the center of the Milky Way. And not just any black hole, it’s a supermassive black hole with more than 4.1 million times the mass of the Sun.

It’s right over there, in the direction of the Sagittarius constellation. Located just 26,000 light-years away. And as we speak, it’s in the process of tearing apart entire stars and star systems, occasionally consuming them, adding to its mass like a voracious shark.

Sagittarius A*. Image credit: Chandra
Sagittarius A*. Image credit: Chandra

Wait, that doesn’t sound cool, that sort of sounds a little scary. Right?

Don’t worry, you have absolutely nothing to worry about, unless you plan to live for quadrillions of years, which I do, thanks to my future robot body. I’m ready for my singularity, Dr. Kurzweil.

Is the supermassive black hole going to consume the Milky Way? If not, why not? If so, why so?

The discovery of a supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way, and really almost all galaxies, is one of my favorite discoveries in the field of astronomy. It’s one of those insights that simultaneously answered some questions, and opened up even more.

Back in the 1970s, the astronomers Bruce Balick and Robert Brown realized that there was an intense source of radio emissions coming from the very center of the Milky Way, in the constellation Sagittarius.

They designated it Sgr A*. The asterisk stands for exciting. You think I’m joking, but I’m not. For once, I’m not joking.

An illustration of Saggitarius A*. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

In 2002, astronomers observed that there were stars zipping past this object, like comets on elliptical paths going around the Sun. Imagine the mass of our Sun, and the tremendous power it would take to wrench a star like that around.

The only objects with that much density and gravity are black holes, but in this case, a black hole with millions of times the mass of our own Sun: a supermassive black hole.

With the discovery of the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole, astronomers found evidence that there are black holes at the heart of every galaxy.

At the same time, the discovery of supermassive black holes helped answer one of the big questions in astronomy: what are quasars? We did a whole article on them, but they’re intensely bright objects, generating enough light they can be seen billions of light-years away. Giving off more energy than the rest of their own galaxy combined.

The quasar SDSS J1106+1939 has the most energetic outflows ever seen, at least five times more powerful than any that have been observed to date. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

It turns out that quasars and supermassive black holes are the same thing. Quasars are just black holes in the process of actively feeding; gobbling up so much material it piles up in an accretion disk around it. Once again, these do sound terrifying. But are we in any danger?

In the short term, no. The black hole at the center of the Milky Way is 26,000 light-years away. Even if it turned into a quasar and started eating stars, you wouldn’t even be able to notice it from this distance.

A black hole is just a concentration of mass in a very small region, which things orbit around. To give you an example, you could replace the Sun with a black hole with the exact same mass, and nothing would change. I mean, we’d all freeze because there wasn’t a Sun in the sky anymore, but the Earth would continue to orbit this black hole in exactly the same orbit, for billions of years.

Same goes with the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. It’s not pulling material in like a vacuum cleaner, it serves as a gravitational anchor for a group of stars to orbit around, for billions of years.

In order for a black hole to actually consume a star, it needs to make a direct hit. To get within the event horizon, which is only about 17 times bigger than the Sun. If a star gets close, without hitting, it’ll get torn apart, but still, it doesn’t happen very often.

A black hole, with an accretion disk, consuming a star. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

The problem happens when these stars interact with one another through their own gravity, and mess with each other’s orbits. A star that would have been orbiting happily for billions of years might get deflected into a collision course with the black hole. But this happens very rarely.

Over the short term, that supermassive black hole is totally harmless. Especially from out here in the galactic suburbs.

But there are a few situations that might cause some problems over vast periods of time.

The first panic will happen when the Milky Way collides with Andromeda in about 4 billion years – let’s call this mess Milkdromeda. Suddenly, you’ll have two whole clouds of stars interacting in all kinds of ways, like an unstable blended family. Stars that would have been safe will careen past other stars and be deflected down into the maw of either of the two supermassive black holes on hand. Andromeda’s black hole could be 100 million times the mass of the Sun, so it’s a bigger target for stars with a death wish.

View of Milkdromeda from Earth "shortly" after the merger, around 3.85-3.9 billion years from now Credit: NASA, ESA, Z. Levay and R. van der Marel (STScI), T. Hallas, and A. Mellinger
View of Milkdromeda from Earth “shortly” after the merger, around 3.85-3.9 billion years from now Credit: NASA, ESA, Z. Levay and R. van der Marel (STScI), T. Hallas, and A. Mellinger

Over the coming billions, trillions and quadrillions of years, more and more galaxies will collide with Milkdromeda, bringing new supermassive black holes and more stars to the chaos.

So many opportunities for mayhem.

Of course, the Sun will die in about 5 billion years, so this future won’t be our problem. Well, fine, with my eternal robot body, it might still be my problem.

After our neighborhood is completely out of galaxies to consume, then there will just be countless eons of time for stars to interact for orbit after orbit. Some will get flung out of Milkdromeda, some will be hurled down into the black hole.

And others will be safe, assuming they can avoid this fate over the Googol years it’ll take for the supermassive black hole to finally evaporate. That’s a 1 followed by 100 zeroes years. That’s a really really long time, so now I don’t like those odds.

For our purposes, the black hole at the heart of the Milky Way is completely and totally safe. In the lifetime of the Sun, it won’t interact with us in any way, or consume more than a handful of stars.

But over the vast eons, it could be a different story. I hope we can be around to find out the answer.

How Fast Can Stars Spin?

Everything in the Universe is spinning. Spinning planets and their spinning moons orbit around spinning stars, which orbit spinning galaxies. It’s spinning all the way down.

Consider that fiery ball in the sky, the Sun. Like all stars, our Sun rotates on its axis. You can’t tell because staring at the Sun long enough will permanently damage your eyeballs. Instead you can use a special purpose solar telescope to observe sunspots and other features on the surface of the Sun. And if you track their movements, you’ll see that the Sun’s equator takes 24.47 days to turn once on its axis. Unlike its slower poles which take 26.24 days to turn.

The Sun isn’t a solid ball of rock, it’s a sphere of hot plasma, so the different regions can complete their rotation at different rates. But it rotates so slowly that it’s an almost perfect sphere.

If you were standing on the surface of the Sun, which you can’t, of course, you would be whipping around at 7,000 km/h. That sounds fast, but just you wait.

How does that compare to other stars, and what’s the fastest that a star can spin?

Achenar is located at the lower right of the constellation Eridanus.
Achenar rotates much faster than our Sun. It is located at the lower right of the constellation Eridanus.

A much faster spinning star is Achenar, the tenth brightest star in the sky, located 139 light-years away in the constellation of Eridanus. It has about 7 times the mass of the Sun, but it spins once on its axis every 2 days. If you could see Achenar up close, it would look like a flattened ball. If you measured it from pole to pole, it would be 7.6 Suns across, but if you measured across the equator, it would be 11.6 Suns across.

If you were standing on the surface of Achenar, you’d be hurtling through space at 900,000 km/h.

The very fastest spinning star we know of is the 25 solar mass VFTS 102, located about 160,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud’s Tarantula Nebula – a factory for massive stars.

If you were standing on the surface of VFTS 102, you’d be moving at 2 million km/h.

In fact, VFTS 102 is spinning so quickly, it can just barely keep itself together. Any faster, and the outward centripetal force would overcome the gravity holding its guts in, and it would tear itself apart. Perhaps that’s why we don’t see any spinning faster; because they couldn’t handle the speed. It appears that this is the fastest that stars can spin.

This is an artist's concept of the fastest rotating star found to date. The massive, bright young star, called VFTS 102, rotates at a million miles per hour, or 100 times faster than our Sun does. Centrifugal forces from this dizzying spin rate have flattened the star into an oblate shape and spun off a disk of hot plasma, seen edge on in this view from a hypothetical planet. The star may have "spun up" by accreting material from a binary companion star. The rapidly evolving companion later exploded as a supernova. The whirling star lies 160,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our Milky Way.  Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)
This is an artist’s concept of VFTS 102, the fastest rotating star found to date. Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

One other interesting note about VFTS 102 is that it’s also hurtling through space much faster than the stars around it. Astronomers think it was once in a binary system with a partner that detonated as a supernova, releasing it into space like a catapult.

Not only stars can spin. Dead stars can spin too, and they take this to a whole other level.

Neutron stars are what you get when a star with much more mass than the Sun detonates as a supernova. Suddenly you’ve got a stellar remnant with twice the mass of the Sun compressed down into a tiny ball about 20 km across. All that angular momentum of the star is retained, and so the neutron star spins at an enormous speed.

The fastest neutron star ever recorded spins around 700 times a second. We know it’s turning this quickly because it’s blasting out beams of radiation that sweep towards us like an insane lighthouse. This, of course, is a pulsar, and we did a whole episode on them.

A regular star would be torn apart, but neutron stars have such intense gravity, they can rotate this quickly. Over time, the radiation streaming from the neutron star strips away its angular momentum, and it slows down.

A black hole with an accretion disk. Credit: (NASA/Dana Berry/SkyWorks Digital)

Black holes can spin even faster than that. In fact, when a black hole is actively feeding from a binary companion, or a supermassive black hole is gobbling up stars, it can rotate at nearly the speed of light. The laws of physics prevent anything in the Universe spinning faster than the speed of light, and black holes go right up to the edge of the law without breaking it.

Astronomers recently found a supermassive black hole spinning up to 87% the maximum speed permitted by relativity.

If you were hoping there are antimatter lurking out there, hoarding all that precious future energy, I’m sorry to say, but astronomers have looked and they haven’t found it. Just like the socks in your dryer, we may never discover where it all went.

A Star Is About To Go 2.5% The Speed Of Light Past A Black Hole

Since it was first discovered in 1974, astronomers have been dying to get a better look at the Supermassive Black Hole (SBH) at the center of our galaxy. Known as Sagittarius A*, scientists have only been able to gauge the position and mass of this SBH by measuring the effect it has on the stars that orbit it. But so far, more detailed observations have eluded them, thanks in part to all the gas and dust that obscures it.

Luckily, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) recently began work with the GRAVITY interferometer, the latest component in their Very Large Telescope (VLT). Using this instrument, which combines near-infrared imaging, adaptive-optics, and vastly improved resolution and accuracy, they have managed to capture images of the stars orbiting Sagittarius A*. And what they have observed was quite fascinating.

One of the primary purposes of GRAVITY is to study the gravitational field around Sagittarius A* in order to make precise measurements of the stars that orbit it. In so doing, the GRAVITY team – which consists of astronomers from the ESO, the Max Planck Institute, and multiple European research institutes – will be able to test Einstein’s theory of General Relativity like never before.

The core of the Milky Way. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Stolovy (SSC/Caltech)
Spitzer image of the core of the Milky Way Galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Stolovy (SSC/Caltech)

In what was the first observation conducted using the new instrument, the GRAVITY team used its powerful interferometric imaging capabilities to study S2, a faint star which orbits Sagittarius A* with a period of only 16 years. This test demonstrated the effectiveness of the GRAVITY instrument – which is 15 times more sensitive than the individual 8.2-metre Unit Telescopes the VLT currently relies on.

This was an historic accomplishment, as a clear view of the center of our galaxy is something that has eluded astronomers in the past. As GRAVITY’s lead scientist, Frank Eisenhauer – from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany – explained to Universe Today via email:

“First, the Galactic Center is hidden behind a huge amount of interstellar dust, and it is practically invisible at optical wavelengths. The stars are only observable in the infrared, so we first had to develop the necessary technology and instruments for that. Second, there are so many stars concentrated in the Galactic Center that a normal telescope is not sharp enough to resolve them. It was only in the late 1990′ and in the beginning of this century when we learned to sharpen the images with the help of speckle interferometry and adaptive optics to see the stars and observe their dance around the central black hole.”

But more than that, the observation of S2 was very well timed. In 2018, the star will be at the closest point in its orbit to the Sagittarius A*  – just 17 light-hours from it. As you can see from the video below, it is at this point that S2 will be moving much faster than at any other point in its orbit (the orbit of S2 is highlighted in red and the position of the central black hole is marked with a red cross).

When it makes its closest approach, S2 will accelerate to speeds of almost 30 million km per hour, which is 2.5% the speed of light. Another opportunity to view this star reach such high speeds will not come again for another 16 years – in 2034. And having shown just how sensitive the instrument is already, the GRAVITY team expects to be able make very precise measurements of the star’s position.

In fact, they anticipate that the level of accuracy will be comparable to that of measuring the positions of objects on the surface of the Moon, right down to the centimeter-scale. As such, they will be able to determine whether the motion of the star as it orbits the black hole are consistent with Einstein’s theories of general relativity.

“[I]t is not the speed itself to cause the general relativistic effects,” explained Eisenhauer, “but the strong gravitation around the black hole. But the very  high orbital speed is a direct consequence and measure of the gravitation, so we refer to it in the press release because the comparison with the speed of light and the ISS illustrates so nicely the extreme conditions.

Artist's impression of the influence gravity has on space time. Credit: space.com
Artist’s impression of the influence gravity has on space-time. Credit: space.com

As recent simulations of the expansion of galaxies in the Universe have shown, Einstein’s theories are still holding up after many decades. However, these tests will offer hard evidence, obtained through direct observation. A star traveling at a portion of the speed of light around a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy will certainly prove to be a fitting test.

And Eisenhauer and his colleagues expect to see some very interesting things. “We hope to see a “kick” in the orbit.” he said. “The general relativistic effects increase very strongly when you approach the black hole, and when the star swings by, these effects will slightly change the direction of the
orbit.”

While those of us here at Earth will not be able to “star gaze” on this occasion and see R2 whipping past Sagittarius A*, we will still be privy to all the results. And then, we just might see if Einstein really was correct when he proposed what is still the predominant theory of gravitation in physics, over a century later.

Further Reading: eso.org

How Massive Can Black Holes Get?

We talk about stellar mass and supermassive black holes. What are the limits? How massive can these things get?

Without the light pressure from nuclear fusion to hold back the mass of the star, the outer layers compress inward in an instant. The star dies, exploding violently as a supernova.

All that’s left behind is a black hole. They start around three times the mass of the Sun, and go up from there. The more a black hole feeds, the bigger it gets.

Terrifyingly, there’s no limit to much material a black hole can consume, if it’s given enough time. The most massive are ones found at the hearts of galaxies. These are the supermassive black holes, such as the 4.1 million mass nugget at the center of the Milky Way. Astronomers figured its mass by watching the movements of stars zipping around the center of the Milky Way, like comets going around the Sun.

There seems to be supermassive black holes at the heart of every galaxy we can find, and our Milky Way’s black hole is actually puny in comparison. Interstellar depicted a black hole with 100 million times the mass of the Sun. And we’re just getting started.

The giant elliptical galaxy M87 has a black hole with 6.2 billion times the mass of the Sun. How can astronomers possibly know that? They’ve spotted a jet of material 4,300 light-years long, blasting out of the center of M87 at relativistic speeds, and only black holes that massive generate jets like that.

Most recently, astronomers announced in the Journal Nature that they have found a black hole with about 12 billion times the mass of the Sun. The accretion disk here generates 429 trillion times more light than the Sun, and it shines clear across the Universe. We see the light from this region from when the Universe was only 6% into its current age.

Somehow this black hole went from zero to 12 billion times the mass of the Sun in about 875 million years. Which poses a tiny concern. Such as how in the dickens is it possible that a black hole could build up so much mass so quickly? Also, we’re seeing it 13 billion years ago. How big is it now? Currently, astronomers have no idea. I’m sure it’s fine. It’s fine right?

We’ve talked about how massive black holes can get, but what about the opposite question? How teeny tiny can a black hole be?

An illustration that shows the powerful winds driven by a supermassive black hole at the centre of a galaxy. The schematic figure in the inset depicts the innermost regions of the galaxy where a black hole accretes, that is, consumes, at a very high rate the surrounding matter (light grey) in the form of a disc (darker grey). At the same time, part of that matter is cast away through powerful winds. (Credits: XMM-Newton and NuSTAR Missions; NASA/JPL-Caltech;Insert:ESA)
An illustration that shows the powerful winds driven by a supermassive black hole at the centre of a galaxy. The schematic figure in the inset depicts the innermost regions of the galaxy where a black hole accretes, that is, consumes, at a very high rate the surrounding matter (light grey) in the form of a disc (darker grey). At the same time, part of that matter is cast away through powerful winds. (Credits: XMM-Newton and NuSTAR Missions; NASA/JPL-Caltech;Insert:ESA)

Astronomers figure there could be primordial black holes, black holes with the mass of a planet, or maybe an asteroid, or maybe a car… or maybe even less. There’s no method that could form them today, but it’s possible that uneven levels of density in the early Universe might have compressed matter into black holes.

Those black holes might still be out there, zipping around the Universe, occasionally running into stars, planets, and spacecraft and interstellar picnics. I’m sure it’s the stellar equivalent of smashing your shin on the edge of the coffee table.

Astronomers have never seen any evidence that they actually exist, so we’ll shrug this off and choose to pretend we shouldn’t be worrying too much. And so it turns out, black holes can get really, really, really massive. 12 billion times the mass of the Sun massive.

What part about black holes still make you confused? Suggest some topics for future episodes of the Guide to Space in the comments below.

Astronomers Catch A Quasar Shutting Off

Last week, astronomers at Yale University reported seeing something unusual: a seemingly stedfast beacon from the far reaches of the Universe went quiet. This relic light source, a quasar located in the region of our sky known as the celestial equator, unexpectedly became 6-7 times dimmer over the first decade of the 21st century. Thanks to this dramatic change in luminosity, astronomers now have an unprecedented opportunity to study both the life cycle of quasars and the galaxies that they once called home.

A quasar arises from a distant (and therefore, very old) galaxy that once contained a central, rotating supermassive black hole – what astronomers call an active galactic nucleus. This spinning beast ravenously swallowed up large amounts of ambient gas and dust, kicking up surrounding material and sending it streaming out of the galaxy at blistering speeds. Quasars shine because these ancient jets achieved tremendous energies, thereby giving rise to a torrent of light so powerful that astronomers are still able to detect it here on Earth, billions of years later.

In their hey-day, some active galactic nuclei were also energetic enough to excite electrons farther away from the central black hole. But even in the very early Universe, electrons couldn’t withstand that kind of excitement forever; the laws of physics don’t allow it. Eventually, each electron would drop back down to its rest state, releasing a photon of corresponding energy. This cycle of excitation happened over and over and over again, in regular and predictable patterns. Modern astronomers can visualize those transitions – and the energies that caused them – by examining a quasar’s optical spectrum for characteristic emission lines at certain wavelengths.

An example of an atomic spectrum, showing emission lines at particular wavelengths.
A simple example of an atomic spectrum, showing emission lines at particular wavelengths. Broad humps correspond to brighter emission lines, while lines that arise from narrow, lower-intensity emissions appear dimmer. Credit: NASA

Not all quasars are created equal, however. While the spectra of some quasars reveal many bright, broad emission lines at different energies, other quasars’ spectra consist of only the dim, narrow variety. Until now, some astronomers thought that these variations in emission lines among quasars were simply due to differences in their orientation as seen from Earth; that is, the more face-on a quasar was relative to us, the broader the emission lines astronomers would be able to see.

But all of that has now been thrown into question, thanks to our friend J015957.64+003310.5, the quasar revealed by the team of astronomers at Yale. Indeed, it is now plausible that a quasar’s pattern of emission lines simply changes over its lifetime. After gathering ten years of spectral observations from the quasar, the researchers observed its original change in brightness in 2010. In July 2014, they confirmed that it was still just as dim, disproving hypotheses that suggested the effect was simply due to intervening gas or dust. “We’ve looked at hundreds of thousands of quasars at this point, and now we’ve found one that has switched off,” explained C. Megan Urry, the study’s co-author.

How would that happen, you ask? After observing the comparable dearth of broad emission lines in its spectrum, Urry and her colleagues believe that long ago, the black hole at the heart of the quasar simply went on a diet. After all, an active galactic nucleus that consumed less material would generate less energy, giving rise to fainter particle jets and fewer excited atoms. “The power source just went dim,” said Stephanie LaMassa, the study’s principal investigator.

LaMassa continued, “Because the life cycle of a quasar is one of the big unknowns, catching one as it changes, within a human lifetime, is amazing.” And since the life cycle of quasars is dependent on the life cycle of supermassive black holes, this discovery may help astronomers to explain how those that lie at the center of most galaxies evolve over time – including Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of our own Milky Way.

“Even though astronomers have been studying quasars for more than 50 years, it’s exciting that someone like me, who has studied black holes for almost a decade, can find something completely new,” added LaMassa.

The team’s research will be published in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal. A pre-print of the paper is available here.

Planets Could Travel Along with Rogue ‘Hypervelocity’ Stars, Spreading Life Throughout the Universe

Back in 1988, astronomer Jack Hills predicted a type of “rogue”star might exist that is not bound to any particular galaxy. These stars, he reasoned, were periodically ejected from their host galaxy by some sort of mechanism to begin traveling through interstellar space.

Since that time, astronomers have made numerous discoveries that indicate these rogue, traveling stars indeed do exist, and far from being an occasional phenomenon, they are actually quite common. What’s more, some of these stars were found to be traveling at extremely high speeds, leading to the designation of hypervelocity stars (HVS).

And now, in a series of papers that published in arXiv Astrophysics, two Harvard researchers have argued that some of these stars may be traveling close to the speed of light. Known as semi-relativistic hypervelocity stars (SHS), these fast-movers are apparently caused by galactic mergers, where the gravitational effect is so strong that it fling stars out of a galaxy entirely. These stars, the researchers say, may have the potential to spread life throughout the Universe.

This finding comes on the heels of two other major announcements. The first occurred in early November when a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal reported that as many as 200 billion rogue stars have been detected in a cluster of galaxies some 4 billion light years away. These observations were made by the Hubble Space Telescope’s Frontier Fields program, which made ultra-deep multiwavelength observations of the Abell 2744 galaxy cluster.

This was followed by a study published in Science, where an international team of astronomers claimed that as many as half the stars in the entire universe live outside of galaxies.

Using ESO's Very Large Telescope, astronomers have recorded a massive star moving at more than 2.6 million kilometres per hour. Stars are not born with such large velocities. Its position in the sky leads to the suggestion that the star was kicked out from the Large Magellanic Cloud, providing indirect evidence for a massive black hole in the Milky Way's closest neighbour. Credit: ESO
Image of a moving star captured by the ESO Very Large Telescope, believed to have been ejected from the Large Magellanic Cloud. Credit: ESO

However, the recent observations made by Abraham Loeb and James Guillochon of Harvard University are arguably the most significant yet concerning these rogue celestial bodies. According to their research papers, these stars may also play a role in spreading life beyond the boundaries of their host galaxies.

In their first paper, the researchers trace these stars to galaxy mergers, which presumably lead to the formation of massive black hole binaries in their centers. According to their calculations, these supermassive black holes (SMBH) will occasionally slingshot stars to semi-relativistic speeds.

“We predict the existence of a new population of stars coasting through the Universe at nearly the speed of light,” Loeb told Universe Today via email. “The stars are ejected by slingshots made of pairs of massive black holes which form during mergers of galaxies.”

These findings have further reinforced that massive compact bodies, widely known as a supermassive black holes (SMBH), exist at the center of galaxies. Here, the fastest known stars exist, orbiting the SMBH and accelerating up to speeds of 10,000 km per second (3 percent the speed of light).

According to Leob and Guillochon, however, those that are ejected as a result of galactic mergers are accelerated to anywhere from one-tenth to one-third the speed of light (roughly 30,000 – 100,000 km per second).

Image of a hypervelocity star found in data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Credit: Vanderbilt University
Image of a hypervelocity star found in data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Credit: Vanderbilt University

Observing these semi-relativistic stars could tell us much about the distant cosmos, according to the Harvard researchers. Compared to conventional research, which relied on subatomic particles like photons, neutrinos, and cosmic rays from distant galaxies, studying ejected stars offers numerous advantages.

“Traditionally, cosmologists used light to study the Universe but objects moving less than the speed of light offer new possibilities,” said Loeb. “For example, stars moving at different speeds allow us to probe a distant source galaxy at different look-back times (since they must have been ejected at different times in order to reach us today), in difference from photons that give us just one snapshot of the galaxy.”

In their second paper, the researchers calculate that there are roughly a trillion of these stars out there to be studied. And given that these stars were detected thanks to the Spitzer Space Telescope, it is likely that future generations will be able to study them using more advanced equipment.

All-sky infrared surveys could locate thousands of these stars speeding through the cosmos. And spectrographic analysis could tell us much about the galaxies they came from.

But how could these fast moving stars be capable of spreading life throughout the cosmos?

Could an alien spore really travel light years between different star systems? Well, as long as your theory doesn't require it to still be alive when it arrives - sure it can.
The Theory of Panspermia argues that life is distributed throughout the universe by celestial objects. Credit: NASA/Jenny Mottar

“Tightly bound planets can join the stars for the ride,” said Loeb. “The fastest stars traverse billions of light years through the universe, offering a thrilling cosmic journey for extra-terrestrial civilizations. In the past, astronomers considered the possibility of transferring life between planets within the solar system and maybe through our Milky Way galaxy. But this newly predicted population of stars can transport life between galaxies across the entire universe.”

The possibility that traveling stars and planets could have been responsible for the spread of life throughout the universe is likely to have implications as a potential addition to the Theory of Panspermia, which states that life exists throughout the universe and is spread by meteorites, comets, asteroids.

But Loeb told Universe Today that a traveling planetary system could have potential uses for our species someday.

“Our descendants might contemplate boarding a related planetary system once the Milky Way will merge with its sister galaxy, Andromeda, in a few billion years,” he said.

Further Reading: arxiv.org/1411.5022, arxiv.org/1411.5030

Astronomers Poised to Capture Image of Supermassive Milky Way Black Hole

Scientists have long suspected that supermassive black holes (SMBH) reside at the center of every large galaxy in our universe. These can be billions of times more massive than our sun, and are so powerful that activity at their boundaries can ripple throughout their host galaxies.

In the case of the Milky Way galaxy, this SMBH is believed to correspond with the location of a complex radio source known as Sagittarius A*.  Like all black holes, no one has even been able to confirm that they exist, simply because no one has ever been able to observe one.

But thanks to researchers working out of MIT’s Haystack Observatory, that may be about to change. Using a new telescope array known as the “Event Horizon Telescope” (EHT), the MIT team hopes to produce this “image of the century” very soon.Initially predicted by Einstein, scientists have been forced to study black holes by observing their apparent effect on space and matter in their vicinity. These include stellar bodies that have periodically disappeared into dark regions, never to be heard from again.

As Sheperd Doeleman, assistant director of the Haystack Observatory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said of black holes: “It’s an exit door from our universe. You walk through that door, you’re not coming back.”

Image of the M87 Galaxy, 50 million ly from the Milky Way, which is believed to have a SMBH at its center. Credit: NASA/CXC/KIPAC/NSF/NRAO/AUI
Image of the M87, a giant elliptical galaxy that is believed to have a SMBH at its center. Credit: NASA/CXC/KIPAC/NSF/NRAO/AUI

As the most extreme object predict by Einstein’s theory of gravity, supermassive black holes are the places in space where, according to Doeleman, “gravity completely goes haywire and crushes an enormous mass into an incredibly close space.”

To create the EHT array, the scientists linked together radio dishes in Hawaii, Arizona, and California. The combined power of the EHT means that it can see details 2,000 times finer than what’s visible to the Hubble Space Telescope.

These radio dishes were then trained on M87, a galaxy some 50 million light years from the Milky Way in the Virgo Cluster, and Sagittarius A* to study the event horizons at their cores.

Other instruments have been able to observe and measure the effects of a black hole on stars, planets, and light. But so far, no one has ever actually seen the Milky Way’s Supermassive black hole.

According to David Rabanus, instruments manager for ALMA: “There is no telescope available which can resolve such a small radius,” he said. “It’s a very high-mass black hole, but that mass is concentrated in a very, very small region.”

Doeleman’s research focuses on studying super massive black holes with sufficient resolution to directly observe the event horizon. To do this his group assembles global networks of telescopes that observe at mm wavelengths to create an Earth-size virtual telescope using the technique of Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI).

Sagittarius A
Image of Sagittarius A*, the complex radio source at the center of the Milky Way, and believed to be a SMBH. Credit: NASA/Chandra

“We target SgrA*, the 4 million solar mass black hole at the center of the Milky Way, and M87, a giant elliptical galaxy,” says Doeleman. “Both of these objects present to us the largest apparent event horizons in the Universe, and both can be resolved by (sub)mm VLBI arrays.” he added. “We call this project The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT).”

Ultimately, the EHT project is a world-wide collaboration that combines the resolving power of numerous antennas from a global network of radio telescopes to capture the first image ever of the most exotic object in our Universe – the event horizon of a black hole.

“In essence, we are making a virtual telescope with a mirror that is as big as the Earth,” said Doeleman who is the principal investigator of the Event Horizon Telescope. “Each radio telescope we use can be thought of as a small silvered portion of a large mirror. With enough such silvered spots, one can start to make an image.”

“The Event Horizon Telescope is the first to resolve spatial scales comparable to the size of the event horizon of a black hole,” said University of California, Berkeley astronomer Jason Dexter. “I don’t think it’s crazy to think we might get an image in the next five years.”

First postulated by Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, the existence of black holes has since been supported by decades’ worth of observations, measurements, and experiments. But never has it been possible to directly observe and image one of these maelstroms, whose sheer gravitational power twists and mangle the very fabric of space and time.

Finally being able to observe one will not only be a major scientific breakthrough, but could very well provide the most impressive imagery ever captured.

“Eye of Sauron” Galaxy Used For New Method of Galactic Surveying

Determining the distance of galaxies from our Solar System is a tricky business. Knowing just how far other galaxies are in relation to our own is not only key to understanding the size of the universe, but its age as well. In the past, this process relied on finding stars in other galaxies whose absolute light output was measurable. By gauging the brightness of these stars, scientists have been able to survey certain galaxies that lie 300 million light years from us.

However, a new and more accurate method has been developed, thanks to a team of scientists led by Dr. Sebastian Hoenig from the University of Southampton. Similar to what land surveyors use here on Earth, they measured the physical and angular (or apparent) size of a standard ruler in the galaxy to calibrate distance measurements.

Hoenig and his team used this method at the W. M. Keck Observatory, near the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, to accurately determine for the first time the distance to the NGC 4151 galaxy – otherwise known to astronomers as the “Eye of Sauron”. Continue reading ““Eye of Sauron” Galaxy Used For New Method of Galactic Surveying”

Surprise! Tiny Galaxy Sports A Huge Black Hole, And There Could Be More Like It

In a finding that could turn supermassive black hole formation theories upside-down, astronomers have spotted one of these beasts inside a tiny galaxy just 157 light-years across — about 500 times smaller than the Milky Way.

The clincher will be if the team can find more black holes like it, and that’s something they’re already starting to work on after the discovery inside of galaxy M60-UCD1. The ultracompact galaxy is one of only about 50 known to astronomers in the nearest galaxy clusters.

“It’s very much like a pinprick in the sky,” said lead researcher Anil Seth, an astrophysicist at the University of Utah, of M60-UCD1 during an online press briefing Tuesday (Sept. 16).

Seth said he realized something special was happening when he saw the plot for stellar motions inside of M60-UCD1, based on data from the Gemini North Telescope in Hawaii. The stars in the center of the galaxy were orbiting much more rapidly than those at the edge. The velocity was unexpected given the kind of stars that are in the galaxy.

“Immediately when I saw the stellar motions map, I knew we were seeing something exciting,” Seth said. “I knew pretty much right away there was an interesting result there.”

Ultracompact dwarf galaxy M60-UCD1 shines in the inset image based on images from the Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-Ray Telescope. Chandra data is pink, and Hubble data is red, green and blue. The large galaxy dominating the field of view of M60. At the right edge is NGC 4647. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/MSU/J.Strader et al, Optical: NASA/STScI
Ultracompact dwarf galaxy M60-UCD1 shines in the inset image based on images from the Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-Ray Telescope. Chandra data is pink, and Hubble data is red, green and blue. The large galaxy dominating the field of view is M60. At the right edge is NGC 4647. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/MSU/J.Strader et al, Optical: NASA/STScI

In its weight class, M60-UCD1 is a standout. Last year, Seth was second co-author on a group that announced that it was the densest nearby galaxy, with stars jam-packed 25 times closer than in the Milky Way. It’s also one of the brightest they know of, a fact that is helped by the galaxy’s relative closeness to Earth. It’s roughly 54 million light-years away, as is the massive galaxy it orbits: M60. The two galaxies are only 20,000 light-years apart.

Supermassive black holes are known to lurk in the centers of most larger galaxies, including the Milky Way. How they got there in the first place, however, is unclear. The find inside of M60-UCD1 is especially intriguing given the relative size of the black hole to the galaxy itself. The black hole is about 15% of the galaxy’s mass, with an equivalent mass of 21 million Suns. The Milky Way’s black hole, by contrast, takes up less than a percentage of our galaxy’s mass.

Given so few ultracompact galaxies are known to astronomers, some basic properties are a mystery. For example, the mass of these galaxy types tends to be higher than expected based on their starlight.

Some astronomers suggest it’s because they have more massive stars than other galaxy types, but Seth said measurements of stars within M60-UCD1 (based on their orbital motion) show normal masses. The extra mass instead comes from the black hole, he argues, and that will likely be true of other ultracompact galaxies as well.

A Hubble Space Telescope image of ultracompact galaxy M60-UCD1 (inset), which is suspected to host a supermassive black hole at its center. It is orbiting the nearby massive galaxy M60. Within the same field of view is NGC 4647. Credit: NASA/Space Telescope Science Institute/European Space Agency
A Hubble Space Telescope image of ultracompact galaxy M60-UCD1 (inset), which is suspected to host a supermassive black hole at its center. It is orbiting the nearby massive galaxy M60. Within the same field of view is NGC 4647. Credit: NASA/Space Telescope Science Institute/European Space Agency

“It’s a new place to look for black holes that was previously not recognized,” he said, but acknowledged the idea of black holes existing in similar galaxies will not be widely accepted until the team makes more finds. An alternative explanation to a black hole could be a suite of low-mass stars or neutron stars that do not give off a lot of light, but Seth said the number of these required in M60-UCD1 is “unreasonably high.”

His team plans to look at several other ultracompact galaxies such as M60-UCD1, but perhaps only seven to eight others would be bright enough from Earth to perform these measurements, he said. (Further work would likely require an instrument such as the forthcoming Thirty-Meter Telescope, he said.) Additionally, Seth has research interests in globular clusters — vast collections of stars — and plans a visit to Hawaii next month to search for black holes in these objects as well.

Results were published today (Sept. 17) in the journal Nature.

What Would It Be Like To Fall Into A Black Hole?

Let’s say you happened to fall into the nearest black hole? What would you experience and see? And what would the rest of the Universe see as this was happening?

Let’s say you decided to ignore some of my previous advice. You’ve just purchased yourself a space dragon from the Market on the Centauri Ringworld, strapped on your favorite chainmail codpiece and sonic sword and now you’re going ride head first into the nearest black hole.

We know it won’t take you to another world or galaxy, but what would you experience and see on your way to your inevitable demise? And what would the rest of the Universe see as this was happening, and would they point and say “eewwwwww”?

If you were falling toward a black hole, most of the time you would simply feel weightless, just as if you were playing Bowie songs and floating in a most peculiar way in the International Space Station. The gravity of a black hole is just like the gravity of any other large mass, as long as you don’t get too close. But, as we’ve agreed, you’re ignoring my advice and flying dragon first into this physics nightmare. As you get closer, the gravitational forces on various parts of your and your dragon’s body would be different. Technically this is always true, but you wouldn’t notice it… at least at first.

Suppose you were falling feet first toward a black hole. As you got closer, your feet would feel a stronger force than your head, for example. These differences in forces are called tidal forces. Because of the tidal forces it would feel as if you are being stretched head to toe, while your sides would feel like they are being pushed inward. Eventually the tidal forces would become so strong that they would rip you apart. This effect of tidal stretching is sometimes boringly referred to as spaghettification.

I’ve made up some other names for it, such as My Own Private String Cheese Incident, “the soft-serve effect” and “AAAHHHHH AHHHH MY LEGS MY LEGS!!!”.

So, let’s summarize. You wouldn’t survive falling toward a black hole because you wouldn’t listen. Why won’t you ever listen?

A friend watching you fall toward a black hole would never see you reach the black hole. As you fall towards it, gravity would cause any light coming from you to be redshifted. So as you approached the black hole you would appear more and more reddish, and your image would appear dimmer and dimmer. Your friend would see you redden and dim as you approach, but never quite reach, the event horizon of the black hole. If they could still see you past this point, there would be additional red from the inside of you clouding up the view.

Artist's conception of the event horizon of a black hole. Credit: Victor de Schwanberg/Science Photo Library
Artist’s conception of the event horizon of a black hole. Credit: Victor de Schwanberg/Science Photo Library

Hypothetically, if you could survive crossing the event horizon of a black hole, what
would you see then? Contrary to popular belief, you would not see the entire future of the universe flash before you.

What you would see is the darkness of the black hole fill your view and as you approached the event horizon you would see stars and galaxies on the edge of your view being gravitationally lensed by the black hole. The sky would simply appear more and more black until you reach the event horizon.

Many people think that it is at the event horizon where you would be ripped apart, and at the event horizon all sorts of strange things occur. Unfortunately, this goes along with those who suspect black holes are actually some sort of portal. For a solar mass black hole, the tidal forces near the event horizon can be quite large, but for a supermassive black hole they aren’t very large at all.

In fact, the larger the black hole, the weaker the tidal forces near its event horizon. So if you happened to be near a supermassive black hole, you could cross the event horizon without really noticing. Would you still be totally screwed? YOU BETCHA!

What do you think? If you could drop anything into a black hole, what would it be? Tell us in the comments below.